Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Will: "I Am"

There is a line in the movie "Amelie" to the effect that the world is not always kind to dreamers. The worst unkindness the world can visit upon anyone, dreamer or not, is to assert that that someone is not who they say they are. William Shakespeare, a dreamer par excellence whose birth we celebrate today, has been the target of naysayers for centuries now. In tribute to his enduring masterpieces I wish to add my voice to those who assert unequivocally that William Shakespeare and only William Shakespeare wrote as William Shakespeare.

It is something of a cottage industry, this anti-Stratfordianism, and it is centered around several arguments I consider flimsy and pointless at best, arrogant and ignorant at worst.

Their arguments include the proposition that it is 'outrageous' to consider that a glover's son from the shire with no degree from Oxford or Cambridge could have written these plays and poetry. Some point
out as well Will Shakespeare's lack of expertise in fields such as law and music, fields he wrote about throughout his career. Others assert that he portrayed court life so thoroughly that he could not have written the plays because he was not a courtier. Thus, the work must have been written by a noble who chose 'William Shakespeare' as his pseudonym. Still others adhere to the theory that the work was written by several nobles. Some believe the work was written by a woman.

As for myself, while I do have questions about his work I have never questioned his authorship of that work. As regards the question of Will Shakespeare's education, no documents have yet been found to affirm formal education for the Bard. We do know there was a grammar school in operation in Stratford-upon-Avon during his childhood years and I suspect that the curriculum was much more rigorous than we could imagine. An adult with as lively a mind as his must have surely been a precocious child. His father was a town councilman of sorts and so I find it easier to imagine he sent his son to school to discipline his mind than that he did not.

To those who say a woman wrote the plays I say, 'No.' I am a woman. I champion women, but from my continuing study of the Renaissance and the quality of life for women then I do not feel that a woman had a chance in hell of either producing or presenting the body of work attributed to William Shakespeare. Yes, Elizabeth I was a titan, a trailblazer, but it would be hundreds of years before women gained any sort of power in the 'play-acting' business. After all, only this year did a woman receive the Academy Award for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"). Eighty-two years of Academy Awards preceded her award. We should not forget, also, that during Shakespeare's time the playhouses were considered dens of iniquity and were the constant target of attempted closures.

I consider the other anti-Stratfordian arguments from the point of view of a writer. From what I have read of court life at the time being a courtier sounds as though it was a full-time job in and of itself. Writing is a lot of work. It takes patience. It takes practice. It pops up in your life in a million different ways and almost always when you least expect it. It does not adhere to any sort of schedule whether one is a noble or not. Some nobles did indeed write; Sir Francis Bacon was famous for his essays, but discursive writing is much different than dramatic or poetic writing as most would agree.

While some nobles did indeed write and present some highly stylized dramatic productions I do not believe any one noble or any group of nobles working in concert could have produced the 36 plays attribute to William Shakespeare. That number indicates that he wrote more than one play per year over the course of his career. One of the aims of court life, it seems to me, was to keep the nobles separate, keep them focused on the monarch and their own best interests. How, then, could such a life foster the group dynamic necessary for a cadre of nobles to write thirty-six plays?
The case against the author(-s) being of the nobility becomes even stronger, in my opinion, when one remembers that William Shakespeare was a part owner of the acting company. In his capacity as partial owner and house playwright I feel it is reasonable to consider that William Shakespeare's career was very likely like that of a playwright and artistic director in today's theatre. The acting company was under the auspices of a noble, and as such it was in the company's best interest to make a profit for said noble. Significantly, William Shakespeare's theatre was profitable, and profitable at a time when players were considered vagrants. We must not forget that Shakespeare's theatre was not the only theatre in town, either. He had competition. The profile he would have had to maintain and the work he had to shoulder to ensure that success rules out any chance that some noble, in favor and dancing attendance at court, was the 'real' author. Any noble out of favor with the court would have been insane or suicidal to take such a risk.

The objections raised around the specialized knowledge depicted in the plays (e.g. music and law) are quite weak. We know little enough about his life to assert one way or the other about his knowledge, or lack thereof, regarding such topics. Further, any responsible writer with a modicum of talent and self-respect knows enough to seek out experts when necessary. For someone of Will Shakespeare's standing I suspect it would be quite easy to obtain expert input whenever necessary.

These arguments aside, I maintain that the sheer talent evidenced in this body of work argues plaintively for a sole author. The poetry and plays form an intricate and intimate web of story which tells me that the author lived story, lived his art. He chose the life and he lived it. The writing life was his answer to Juliet's question, "Wherefore art thou?" His art was his way of being himself. He knew the work inside out, upside down, every which way. Writing was not a sometime pastime for him. It was life.

Not all writers have the kind of talent it takes to write original stories, stories like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Tempest," "King Lear," "Othello," "Much Ado About Nothing," " Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice," "The Winter's Tale," and the list continues. Here I paraphrase the praise Lewis Mumford lavished upon 20th century painter Georgia O'Keeffe in 1936 when I say that in "conception and execution" not only is William Shakespeare's body of work evidence "of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul, which distinguishes important communication from the casual reports of the eye" and ear.

There is no question in my mind at all that William Shakespeare was a willing conduit for the creative force which accesses knowledge and tuition beyond that available to our senses. He was a willing, talented, and inspiring conduit. We have evidence that at least one contemporary playwright considered Will Shakespeare a professional threat and felt inspired to jealousy by his work. Jealousy does not spring from watching another fail.

My final argument for Will Shakespeare as the author of Will Shakespeare's plays and poetry is his eminent work, "Hamlet," the 'existential' play, the play about 'being.' This play's the thing wherein he addressed the attacks upon his authorship of the plays, "the slings and arrows" aimed at his "outrageous fortune," his unprecedented success. How better to assert his right to his own work than by couching it in the play wherein he lays bare his grief over the death of his only son, Hamnet?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appall the free,
Confound the ignorant and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.

"Hamlet," II.ii.586-593, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

No other man anywhere, ever, can claim Hamnet as his son but William Shakespeare. Nor can any other person anywhere in time lay claim to the poetry and drama of William Shakespeare. This is his primal scream, "I Am!" Any number of men may have wanted to rule the Globe, but only William Shakespeare, the glover's son from Stratford has that distinction.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

"Othello," III.iii.182-190, Folger Shakespeare Library ed.

[Photos (all Barbara Butler McCoy): Top: from the Martin Luther King museum, Atlanta, GA; 2009; Middle: a fool pictured on a toy store window, St. Simons Island, GA; 2009; Bottom: banner outside the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.; 2009]

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Oh, it feels good to be here. Rarely during these past weeks and months have I had the time for my art or for this. There just wasn't time. That has been tough because Art is the means I choose to be myself. Fortunately I have the life and works of Georgia O'Keeffe to serve as wonderful examples of maintaining an artful life whatever the circumstances.

She chose every day to practice art, to live art. It takes a lot of fortitude to outlast such pressures. You really have to want to live it, to practice it, to withstand that. One of my favorite anecdotes from Ms. O'Keeffe's life involves her stint as "supervisor of drawing and penmanship" in 1913. "She was responsible for the art education of hundreds of pupils in Amarillo's half-dozen schools." She was a proponent of the teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow and "fiercely opposed the old-fashioned teaching technique of 'copying,' and she told her pupils not to buy an expensive drawing book ... that had been recommended by the educators. In the spring of 1913, however, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring the use of textbooks chosen by the state commission ... A tense, lengthy struggle between Georgia and the state of Texas ensued - but when the school year ended, the books had not been bought."

Why art? Why does the practice of art make such a difference? See, it is not just art - not 'just' a painting, not 'just' a photograph, not 'just' a sculpture, not 'just' a song, not 'just' a poem. It is art from the heart.

Ms. O'Keeffe saw this so clearly and communicated it with her work entitled "My Heart," stones rendered in pastels. She had a visual reminder before her in New Mexico of constancy amid change, the Pedernal, birthplace of the Navajos' 'Changing Woman.' The heart Ms. O'Keeffe saw, like the Pedernal, is the constant in human life amidst whatever change occurs. The heart is the constant. Years before her pastel rendering of her heart Alfred Stieglitz, her husband, had shown her work with that of other women artists to declare to the world his assertion that "women could reveal a new and uniquely feminine perspective on modern experience." I feel Stieglitz was only partially correct in that assertion.

Rather than revealing a new perspective on modern experience alone, anyone practicing, anyone living, an artful life can reveal through their work a new and unique perspective on Human experience. How? How?

The practice of art is the practice of mindfulness. It is the practice of being here now. It is the practice of connecting to the Everlasting through the heart and channeling the tuition received there to the mind to inform the art. There are no short cuts here - no painting by the numbers, no storytelling by special software, no drawing by textbook copying. The only way to art is through the heart. The beauty of it is, to me, that just as Ms. O'Keeffe's heart could have been part of that Pedernal, her art, anyone's art, offers a perspective on the human experience.
The vision and knowledge of human experience that comes when heart and mind are tuned to the Everlasting in the here and now is vision and knowledge that sees above and beyond, beyond what is available to the senses, beyond the petty contrivances that may clutter our days.
This is brilliantly articulated in a review in The New Yorker of a 1930s show of her work, this portion of which will be my closing note:

Not only is it a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it
likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul, which distinguishes important communication from the casual reports of the eye ...

[Photos: Top: Weeping cherry, the author, 2010; Middle: detail from pastel by author's son, Dan, 1999; Bottom: detail from scratchboard piece by author's son, Sean, 2002]

[Bibliography: Lisle, Laurie. "Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe." New York: Washington Square Press, 1980, 1986]